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Bob the Builder – Scottish Review of Books
by Candia McWilliam

Bob the Builder

November 10, 2009 | by Candia McWilliam

SOME WEEKS AGO there emerged a life of James Lees-Milne, diarist and saviour of many buildings in the early days of the National Trust. In it, his own account of his conversion to the cause of rescuing imperilled buildings is questioned by his biographer, Michael Bloch; Lees-Milne says it came when he heard some members of the upper class bay for the sound of breaking glass. It’s a primal scene. These may lack veracity while remaining potent in the extreme.

How fascinating, then, to read in Arbiter Of Elegance, Roderick Graham’s absorbing and intelligent account of the life of the Scot Robert Adam, one of the sovereign architects of, let us say, Christendom (or perhaps of Europe in the modern era), that Adam, during his Grand Tour, spent a quiet suppertime in Rome with the Ramsays (he called Allan Ramsay ‘Old Mumpty’) “then met some gallants on the way home, got very drunk with them and pursued one of their number to his home where he indulged in an orgy of window breaking”.

Attention to the subject’s own way of seeing is everything in the told life, perhaps even more so in that of an aesthete, such as these two subjects are, Lees-Milne a dedicated amateur, Adam that genius of a commodious waltzing interpretation of Classical Rome and conversational and philosophical (in the environs of Edward Hollis’ The Secret Lives of Buildings, one could almost certainly say emotional) deployment of space, a great Scots architect pre-eminent among many great Scots architects, a great architect by any measure.

Robert Adam and Dumfries House one of his classic buildings

Robert Adam is blessed in his biographer. Architecture, as I have read it described, “applies itself like music (and, I believe, we must add poetry) directly to the imagination, without the intervention of any kind of limitation”. It is an art hard to describe without recourse to technicalities or risky descriptive flights. Graham has chosen a sober course that pays off. Insistent upon Adam’s passion for what he called “movement”, he describes the transformations worked upon great houses and envisaged in terms of great projects by the architect.

Throughout, Graham lets his subject speak. In a comparatively compact and very clearly expressed book, rich in quotation from the wildly ambitious self-dubbed “Bob of Rome” (he and his three brothers and three sisters and mother were great letter writers), Graham offers us the progress of Adam’s father the architect William, of the siblings, of the firm that ended its days, after even so many glories, so deep in debt that the youngest brother William, at the age of eighty–four, killed himself. The story of the eventual disposition of the nine thousand drawings left by Robert, in fifty-four books, is shameful and gripping. No one wanted them, not the British Museum, not collectors. They were knocked down at fifty pounds below the reserve to Sir John Soane.

Graham places the whole, sometimes frustrating, often glorious, beset by the limitations of clients, professional transit clearly in context, in Scotland itself and in Scotland with relation to England and vice versa. Anglo-Scots relations were riddled with tension at a time when the English feared Jacobitism and were encouraged to loathe “Scotchmen” (Lord Bute, who had been a minister, was widely thought to have been sleeping with a royal princess); the burghers of Edinburgh, in their turn, were pusillanimously suspicious of anyone who had even been in London, where the Adam brothers had an office.

We are continually conscious, as we read this book, of the intellectual presence of Europe, most especially of the polarising factions of taste and interpretation that accreted around the much-debated respective virtues of Rome and Greece. Graham sets out clearly, without overmuch simplifying, the roots of the arguments, and the positions of their enthusiasts and exegetes, Vitruvius, Piranesi, Adam himself on the ‘side’ of Rome, on that of Greece, Cardinal Albani’s librarian, the antiquarian Winckelmann, who said that “Roman taste is flabby and coarse”, and ‘Athenian’ Stuart. (France is spoken of by Adam as a place where a fellow student had acquired “accordingly that abominable taste in perfection”).

The story is an irresistible one in terms of history of architecture, of social change and of a temperament and an individual. Adam was in a hurry. He gave his life to an art whose effects are to shelter, elicit what is humanly best and to express an interpretation of the created world; most people do this through reproduction. While Adam often mentions having charmed ladies, or having danced with them, he never married; his family life was lived richly among his siblings, his humanity expressed in the beauty of progression of spaces born one from the other, a progression that we still enjoy and are astonished by. We see his descendants, that is his buildings, where they have not been destroyed by modification or burned by war and we live amid his influence, (and, regrettably, its misrepresentation and even its parody).

One of the unhappiest events in the family life of this congenial and often remarkably commercially united band of brothers was the episode concerning the development of The Adelphi, in London. Adelphi is itself an Anglicisation of “adelphoi”, the Ancient Greek for “brothers”. Alas, in order to raise the money for this joint venture, Robert and James Adam prevailed upon their older brother, John, to mortgage the family house Blair Adam, which their father William had so mightily laboured to establish. Relations, hitherto intimate and mutually interested in all senses, cooled and remained unmended.

The appetite of Robert Adam to fulfil his genius was fed by friendships in which Graham takes evident relish. The partnership with Piranesi, and the relationships with his many nonpareil craftsmen, the games of novelty golf with Garrick, the tensions with his companion on the Grand Tour, Charles Hope, come to life, also the constant difficulty of there being no contest between genius and man of rank when it came to hierarchy and consequent baulk. This book acquits its self-set project with attractive purpose and strength, fulfilling the Vitruvian requirements of Venustas, Utilitas, Firmitas. It is widely and deeply researched but not worn by its decoration.

All biographical accounts of creation are in the end to be judged by the account of what the subject has created. Roderick Graham has an understanding of the moral and lived as well as the aesthetic aspects of the art his subject brought to such commodious flower. My only cavil would be a tendency to judge behaviour by anachronistic contemporary criteria and a – very – occasional tumble into slightly portentous journalese. Arbiter Of Elegance is a very creditable and well-made progression of the chambers of a life indeed, and a book to revisit. The glossary is helpful and generous and the bibliography mouth-watering, at least to this reader. In ghostly addition there is conscientious record of what Adam did not build, despite his offering plans, and it hollows out grief for churches, houses, even cities (including a new plan for a development in Edinburgh) that were never to be.

“At the heart of architectural theory is a paradox: buildings are designed to last, and therefore they outlast the insubstantial pageants that made them” asserts Edward Hollis in his beautifully presented meditation upon the relation of buildings, at its most wide, to time. He goes on to say what is at the heart of this risky and sometimes rather conceptually toppling book. “More often than not, the confident dicta of architectural theory are undermined by the secret lives of buildings, which are capricious, protean, and unpredictable; but all too often the contradiction is treated as the object of interest only to specialists involved in heritage conservation or interior design”.

By the secret lives of buildings, he does not mean as it were concrete rot or the white ant, or any merely physical entropy. I think that he means a sort of historical and human transit of that most weaselly and often unintentionally ironic term, ‘change of use’, though nothing so banal goes near this book which is far more dazzling than it is frustrating, but which nonetheless occasionally stubs the reading brain.

It’s written in a style that – I believe intentionally – varies wildly, tempted sometimes to the vatic, freeing itself sometimes into real responsive loveliness. Style matters very much in the discussion of an art whose aesthetic is, I think and hope Edward Hollis would concur, a moral one. Often Hollis achieves the fine combination of content and means of transmission that is at the heart of the artistic adventure: “When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature”.

Taking thirteen built environments (the deadly phrase is necessary since Hollis is excitingly challenging in his choices), the author, who is a teacher at Edinburgh College of Art and by whom it would assuredly be exhilarating to be taught, gives an account of the effects of time and chance and all consequent event, accident, loss, religion, love and hard cash upon them. The progress is risky but its effect almost marvellously greater than the sum of its parts. A book that visits so intensively such various sites – the Hippodrome in Con-stantinople, the Holy House of Loreto, Gloucester Cathedral, the Alhambra, East Germany, the Western Wall, the Venetian at Las Vegas, among others – and whose style swerves and dilates, can lose its reader in effect and jostle and cramming and colour. It is not quite digestible but it is fierily inspiring and it bids the reader pay attention to the humane art at its heart. It has almost crazy reach. This optimism and fire define it as young man’s book (nothing wrong with that at all), but also fuel its movement and illumine its passages.

Just occasionally, there is a veer towards the purple of the ropey melodrama of Harrison Ainsworth – “a mysterious cave that spewed forth noxious vapours” – but much more often we accompany the author on his enormous tour as he records and laments, returning as to a touchstone to the idea of the depredated Acropolis as it endures through time, made and remade, painted, stripped, pillaged, and now to be refaced with marble held in place with staples not of red iron, that bleeds its rust down that often raped temple, but of unbleeding titanium. Edward Hollis sometimes goes too far; this is immeasurably more generous than not going far enough. His love for his subject, his fantastic eye and ear for quirk, and, poignantly, his deep human identification with prince or artisan, sustain this book which I thought at first peculiar and now regard as prodigious. Most prodigies alienate. This does not; it’s also an intimately imagined book, as when Hollis, surprisingly but tellingly, looks into Ostalgie, that longing for the lost(ish) privations of the old GDR suffered by some of those left in no man’s land by the falling of the Berlin Wall.

Arbiter Of Elegance: A Biography Of Robert Adam
Roderick Graham
Birlinn, £25
pp384, ISBN 9781841588025

The Secret Lives Of Buildings
Edward Hollis
Portobello Books, £25
pp448 ISBN 9781846271274

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